whether Christians who owned slaves were Christians at all. These new students of Scripture did not find in the Bible a justification of slavery or the enslavement of Africans in particular. The mixed-race clergyman Lemuel Haynes and the African-born Ottobah Cugoano in London denied that blacks bore the Mark of Cain or suffered from the Curse of Ham. (Cugoano, indeed, thought that the Canaanites perhaps had come to settle in the Americas as West Indian slaveholders.) These writers instead called for a shift in emphasis in the definition of Christian ethics. They found in the Bible the principle of justice and charity, not a sacred basis for servitude and oppression. They found an avenging God who humbled the great and raised the meek. 'How hateful slavery is in the sight of God', wrote the black Methodist preachers Richard Allen and Absalom Jones in 1794, 'who hath destroyed King and Princes for the oppression of slaves'. Following the lead of both Quakers and the Calvinist theologians of the New Divinity, this first generation of black abolitionists insisted that religious purity and the laws of God must take precedence over the laws of man.19
The abolition of slavery in the northern and middle United States in the years after the American Revolution made possible the establishment of the first independent black churches. Absalom Jones and Richard Allen would be responsible in 1816 for the founding of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, the first independent black church in the Americas. Their work occurred simultaneously with an extraordinary growth of black Baptist congregations across the English-speaking world, in Nova Scotia, the Chesapeake, Georgia and the Carolinas, and in Jamaica. These new congregations were led by black preachers who brought the evangelical revival to tens of thousands of black men and women, free and slave alike. They promoted communal and cultural autonomy. In the middle and northern United States they also emerged as institutional bases for the promotion of abolitionism. Religious leaders in these churches came forward as an incipient leadership class, positioned to speak for and speak to the great many black men and women who lacked a public voice. It was in the black churches, historian Richard Newman has argued, that the case for immediate emancipation was sustained in the United States between 1790 and 1830, as the enthusiasm for abolitionism subsided after the revolutionary era, and after the abolition of the US slave trade in 1807, a decision that owed more to a collective assessment of social and economic interests than to a commitment to revolutionary principles or religious ideals.20
As centres of community life, the churches also helped foster a sense of nationhood among newly freed slaves. They helped black men and women see
Was this article helpful?